Tuesday, 31 March 2015

a musical discovery

I went last night to hear The Furrow Collective at the Colchester Arts Centre, on the strength of having heard one member of the quartet before as part of a different line-up at Ipswich, and liked her.  The friend I went with to that gig really liked Lucy Farrell's voice as well, and so we agreed to give another of her incarnations a go.  The members of the Furrow Collective are all young (by my standards), the next generation on from Martin Carthy and Martin Simpson, but well established.

One reviewer described them as a bleakly charming and intriguing curiosity, which I should think pleased them.  All four are good singers, giving strength in depth in the vocals, and they take it in turns to lead on songs, giving an interesting variety of styles and accents, since two members of the group are Scottish and one is a man.  Between them they muster a harp, a guitar, two fiddles, a banjo, a concertina, and a musical saw.  Their sound is pretty stripped down, and I liked it a lot. Their timing is subtle but very tight.

They have the knack of finding good versions of traditional songs, which is a distinct talent.  It's always a sad disappointment sitting through a set by somebody with a great voice or slick guitar technique, who has managed to come up with duff versions of everything (or bad songs. Unfortunately there are many more would-be singer-songwriters than there are good songs written in this world.  For further elaboration on the theme see last year's splendid film release Frank, a tale of mismatched musical talent and ambition, also featuring a brilliant performance by Michael Fassbender managing to convey a remarkable range of emotions while wearing a large papier-mache head that completely hides his face).

It was a dark and a windy night, and I wouldn't have chosen to go out in it if I hadn't already got my ticket and arranged to meet somebody.  That is one of the advantages of buying tickets in advance even for things which you are sure are not going to sell out, it makes you go and then you enjoy it when you get there.  The Arts Centre was nowhere near full for The Furrow Collective, which was a great waste given the quality of the music on offer.  There again, almost no folk musicians except Martin Carthy and Cara Dillon do completely fill the Colchester Arts Centre.  Last night they hadn't bothered to set out chairs in either of the side aisles, and had put chairs and tables cafe style in front of the stage, to help make the place look fuller.  They are trying to raise funds at the moment for new chairs, and I hope they succeed since the current ones were designed with no reference to the human form, and my back was aching long before we ever got through the support act.

This morning I wound up the bathroom blind to see that a green bucket of prunings and a Strulch bag stuffed with other empty bags, which I had left on the lawn the day before, had blown into the rose bed landing on the bulbs whose emerging leaves I'd been so careful not to crush when mulching the bed.  Our initial attempt to film the performance of the new anti-rabbit gate failed as well, since the camera blew over in the small hours.  I hate this wind.

Monday, 30 March 2015

the gardeners strike back

The Systems Administrator has finished the anti-rabbit gate, a piece of plant support netting held between battens, with a loose curtain overlapping the bottom batten so as to take up the unevenness of the drive.  It is ingeniously hinged at one end and hooks on to a bolt at the other. Constructing the wooden hinge required a fair amount of bodging, but having one saves me having to try and hook both ends of the batten up at once.  That would be a task designed to drive anybody mad, especially performed after dark or in the rain.  A half gale blew through the entire process, and the SA's residual cold had developed into a headache by the end of it.  It is a very fine rabbit gate, though.  I shall take great pleasure in shutting it behind me as I go out this evening, though opening it and shutting it again when I get back may be less fun as by then it is forecast to be raining heavily.

We've had the wildlife camera set on the gravel where my poor bulbs got eaten for the past forty-eight hours.  It revealed Black and White Alsatian Killer Cat passing at speed, having evidently clocked the infra-red camera and not liked it, and at around midnight Our Ginger who saw the camera and paused in front of it to beam.  He does go out at night, it seems, just not until after we've gone to bed and the non-stop feline party has ended for the day.

There was also a small rabbit, just the one, which first appeared not long after dusk.  The SA was surprised at how early in the night the camera picked it up, but I thought that rabbits were crepuscular animals.  Which said, I've seen them running round the neighbour's field and the grass by the lettuce farm reservoir quite late into the night, when I've been coming back from evenings out.  In the old days when our cats were fierce the rabbits always used to jinx left or right at our entrance, though, never going in.  Not any more, alas.

There is the nasty possibility that by now we have them living in the garden.  The camera is set on the gate for now, to see how it performs, but after that I want to move it to the back garden and discover the terrible truth.  Both the Cardamine quinquefolia I got from the Chatto gardens and planted in their obscure corner only a few days ago have been eaten to the ground, as has the existing plant which was flowering, and is why I noticed the damage in passing as my brain registered that the splash of pink in that corner was missing.

I'd actually gone to the bottom of the garden to prune the hydrangea 'Annabelle', which is one of those that you can take down to a short framework in March if you want to without losing a year's flowers.  It tends to be a floppy thing, and I thought that shorter might be better.  Once I was in the back garden I spent the rest of the day applying Strulch.  Originally I'd thought it would be too windy, or rather originally I'd expected it to be raining, which is what the forecast for Monday said yesterday, but by today the forecast had changed and the rose beds seemed reasonably sheltered. The leaves of the bulbs and perennials are enlarging day by day, and the sooner all the beds are Strulched the better. They are not  all going to be Strulched, though, unless I buy some more, as I can tell from looking at what I've done and what's left to do that I'm at least half a pallet short.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

windier sunday

I happened to hear yesterday evening's shipping forecast of Force 9 for Thames, and as the wind got up late on I suddenly remembered that the garden dining chairs were still sitting on the deck by the conservatory.  It's for such moments that I bought the large Maglite torch (I love Maglites.  I have a tiny one that lives in my handbag, and fantasies of owning one of the really big multi battery models traditionally carried by gamekeepers, being so heavy that they function as blunt instruments while not counting as offensive weapons).  I padded down to the back garden and moved the chairs off the deck on to the lawn, so that they could not blow through the conservatory windows.

Morning brought a hiatus in the wind but it was raining, periods of light splutter alternating with vicious squalls, while the wind gradually got up again.  I don't think we saw the full Force 9 here, but the land generally slows things down compared to conditions at sea so that you can reckon on knocking one off the forecast strength.  A Nine is technically a Severe Gale.  It does not become a Storm until it hits Force 10.  Every so often some radio or newspaper piece refers to force nine storms, and I rage inwardly.

I didn't fancy the greenhouse in that much wind.  It is getting a bit old and rattly, and doesn't feel entirely secure in real gale of wind, though so far the lost panes have all slid outwards so you would have been fine inside, just not if you were standing next to it.  And I've been grumbling for weeks that my chest is still bunged up with phlegm so I thought it might be vaguely sensible to try and stay warm and dry, and had already earmarked the day for desk jobs.  I spent it going through old gardening magazines before filing them away in date order in boxes in the garage, which holds a pretty comprehensive archive of popular consumer taste and aspirations by now, going back to the 1980s and augmented by some earlier RHS magazines inherited from my late father-in-law.  Probably most of it will never be used, and will end up at the recyling centre as and when we shuffle off to somewhere smaller and easier to heat, with a more manageable garden, or else the mortal coil, whichever comes first.  In the meantime there is space for them in the garage.

I pondered on various garden issues as I read through them, and came to some decisions.  I should not waste my time trying to move a couple of Penstemon grandiflorus, that have never thrived in their current position (there used to be three, which tells you quite how little they have like it there).  Penstemon do not move well, and I'd do better to start again with healthy young plants if I want to try again somewhere else (though I'm not sure where).  A Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans' which was a delight as a youngster but ceased to be beautiful at least a year ago has got to come out.  The Systems Administrator would chop it down for me with the chainsaw, though after that the thought of dealing with the rootball makes my heart sink, but it needs to go.  Helen Dillon recommends an alternative to the giant oat grass Stipa gigantea whose flowers last all through the winter, whereas those of the Stipa have gone tatty and bald by late autumn.  Some of the existing Stipa seem to have died out in great patches, after several years of loyal service, so maybe I should try and track down Chionocloa conspicua in their place.  I definitely need a sculptural focus for a spot by the conservatory.  Maybe I could use an amethyst geode outdoors in summer, and bring it in for the winter, or else start saving up for a Whichford elephant pot.  I have coveted both for years. It's funny, my normal standpoint that I don't want many things completely breaks down when it comes to the garden.

I'd have rather been outside, if the weather had been half decent, but a chunk of gardening is also done in your head, reading and thinking.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

windy saturday

The clocks go forward tonight, but it still barely feels like spring.  I spent the day moving more of the great pile of compost on to the vegetable patch, chiselling weeds and roots out of the veg beds as I went  and collecting stones, round pebbles for the beach garden in one pot and irregular lumpy ones in another pot for the path by the dustbin.  The latter still has some bare patches of Mypex membrane showing, but it's getting there.  When it's completely covered I shall work out the area, and try and calculate how many dump bags worth of stone I must have moved, one potful at a time. I'll find it difficult to drop the habit of collecting stones once it's finished, though it will always need topping up as the stones tend to shift to the side over time leaving bare patches in the middle when we walk.  And I can syphon off especially knobbly and picturesque flinty stones for the dry garden by the entrance.

There was a stone covered path across one of the display gardens at Writtle, not laid on fabric, which according to one of the landscape tutors had been topped up over the years with fresh aggregate equivalent to a metre's depth, while still mysteriously remaining at the same level as the rest of the garden.

There was no sign of any of the broad beans coming up, or the parsnips, but I wasn't expecting to see anything of them yet since they are notoriously slow to germinate.  I didn't try to make any further sowings, since handling seed outside when it's too windy is simply frustrating.  Small seeds can blow clean out of the palm of your hand, and a sudden gust can too easily send the open seed packets bowling down the path, scattering their contents wastefully on the ground.

The poor old chickens didn't get a run.  They looked at me slightly hopefully at lunchtime, but their heart wasn't really in it, and mine certainly wasn't.  Hens don't like wind, presumably because the noise and bluster makes it more difficult for them to tell when there are predators about, and I was afraid that if I let them out they would disappear inside the hedge or deep into the back of the big bed in the back garden, and I would find it difficult to keep track of where they were.  And I don't like wind either, it makes me clumsy, and I didn't want to find myself trailing around the back garden after the chickens doing five minutes of this and ten minutes of that, while the wind blew my buckets over and sent my kneeling mat tumbling across the lawn each time I got up.

The Systems Administrator is building a panel to hang across the entrance, of plastic mesh hanging from a wooden frame, to prevent all but the most determined rabbits from coming in during the night.  I am reconciled to hoofing down the drive each morning to move it before the postman arrives.  That shouldn't be too much of a challenge on week days, since the post generally comes some time between mid morning and lunchtime, but for some reason it's earlier on Saturdays.  This morning he came at twenty past eight.  I was already up and had let the hens into their run, but not that long before.

Friday, 27 March 2015

beastly bunnies

Rabbits have eaten the leaves off more of the bulbs by the entrance to the garden, including some freshly planted Dichelostemma and a second tray that was sitting there waiting to go into the ground.  I managed to get them all the way through the winter without being attacked by the mice that have been plaguing the greenhouse, then a couple of days outside and they've been grazed off. The foxtail lilies are being steadily cropped to the ground, and most of the flower buds have gone from the fritillaries.  It is really quite discouraging.  As a stopgap the Systems Administrator has offered to make a temporary wire barrier to go across the entrance to the drive, which I can take down each morning when I go out to let the hens into their run, as that's normally before the postman comes.

And we are talking each other into believing that Our Ginger and the short indignant tabby could cope with the introduction of kittens.  That's what we need, a couple of fit young cats patrolling the garden and putting the fear of god into the local rabbit population, which stayed out for over a decade while the two Maine Coons and the black cat were in their prime.  Meanwhile, on the basis of know-thy-enemy, the wildlife camera is set up on the affected bulbs to try and discover how many rabbits are coming in, and at what time.  It was previously supposed to have been telling us what creature was making the mysterious burrows near the chicken house, but the SA found no images because the batteries had gone flat.  They were cheap own brand ones, and evidently a false economy.

At least rabbits don't seem to eat daffodils.  Actually, nothing much does, apart from Narcissus root fly and particularly stupid supermarket shoppers.  Most creatures appreciate that they are toxic. They don't last overly long in our garden, though.  A gardening friend with equally dry, light soil said that they didn't do well in her garden either, so I blame the conditions and not my cultivation techniques.  Today I added some more of the variety 'Sun Disc' to one of the borders in the back garden, since my first planting made in 2009 has persisted pretty well.  The 'Beryl' planted at the same time in the same border have almost entirely disappeared.  'Sun Disc' is a fairly low growing daffodil, with neat little round flowers of lemon yellow, surrounding a dainty, darker yellow cup.

I've got some of the white flowered variety 'Thalia' to go into the daffodil lawn.  The grass is beginning to grow, as are the other daffodils so I can see where they are, and it will be a challenge planting 'Thalia' without making too much of a mess trampling everything else, and settling the earth around the newly planted leaves so that they stand upright and look natural immediately.  If they sit there all awry and looking awkward and trussed up it will spoil the look of the entire lawn for this season.  'Thalia' is a Victorian variety, and not always easy to track down, so I was pleased to find them in the Peter Nyssen catalogue.  I've already got some, which have lasted reasonably well, and they are said to tolerate partial shade which is useful as the hedge and oak tree have grown since I first planted daffodils in that lawn.

None of it will quite take my mind off the rabbits.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

a busy day

It's been a long day.  I had a ticket for the R3 lunchtime concert at LSO St Lukes, which meant I had to go to London, unless I wanted to waste my ticket.  The concert was one of four I booked last year spread over several months, the theory being that I'd enjoy them when I got there, while if I didn't book it was very easy to never get round to going.  It was raining too, so I wouldn't have been able to do anything in the garden, though the downside was that I had to get myself about London in the rain and my cold is still refusing to budge from my chest.  The Systems Administrator assured me that it was going to stop raining later, and when I got to St Lukes I discovered from a fellow concert goer that the fourth and final concert I'd booked for in June was already sold out.

Today was the Atos Trio, and while the eventual audience was respectable the hall was not full. The pulling power of chamber musicians seems to work on the same pyramidal basis as folk musicians.  A few, Nicola Benedetti or Martin Carthy, can be almost guaranteed to sell out and advance booking is essential.  For the great majority you'll probably get in OK just turning up on the day.  It was so long since I booked the Atos Trio I'd completely forgotten what the programme was, but the blackboard on the pavement outside told me that it was Haydn and Brahms.

I love LSO St Lukes.  I like the performance space, the programming of the lunchtime concerts, the informative programme notes that are thrust into your hand free and gratis as you go in, and the peaceful depths of the crypt cafe where you can get a piece of millionaire's shortbread and filter coffee with refills for £3.50.  If I worked around Silicon Roundabout I'd try and schedule my meetings so that I could go every week.  Today's music turned out to be interesting without making me fall in love with either piece.  The Haydn represented an early stage in the development of the string trio, according to the notes, when the violin and cello were still emerging from their subsidiary roles as supplementary bass line for the harpsichord on to an equal footing.  The Brahms was a mixture of his early and late output, Brahms writing the first version as a young man and then substantially reworking it thirty-five years later (I was mildly perturbed that the notes referred to the fifty-six year old Brahms as elderly).  The whole thing is being broadcast at lunchtime tomorrow, Friday 27 March, on Radio 3.

After the concert I made my way to Trafalgar Square to see if I could get into the National Gallery's current exhibition Inventing Impressionism.  If I'd had anybody with me I wouldn't have risked dragging them down there, since if there's one thing a British art audience likes more than another it's a nice dose of impressionism, but a friend got in without booking on a Saturday a couple of weeks back, and it seemed worth a try.  I had a fall back position just in case, to go round the corner to the National Portrait Gallery and learn about the Duke of Wellington instead, but the National Gallery was selling impressionism tickets for immediate admission.  The show has reviewed well, but it seems that to really tickle the public taste a job lot of impressionists isn't enough, the great British public want wall to wall Degas dancers, or else Van Gogh.

There was nothing of Vincent's at all in the current exhibition, because the uniting theme is the work of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who put his reputation and all his capital on the line by taking up many of the impressionists (though not Van Gogh, and scarcely any Cezanne), acting not merely as agent but as a principal, buying their work from them and holding it as his own stock, sometimes for years.  I thought that made the show doubly interesting, as a document of social and economic history as well as a collection of paintings, although by now they are so highly regarded it's a hard stretch of the imagination to see them as the worthless alien daubs that the French art establishment treated them as at the time.  A Monet near the end of the exhibition was originally going to be offered as a gift to the National Gallery, except that the management let it be known that the offer would be declined.  It was not a very big Monet (and not red, which according to Grayson Perry puts up the price of pictures), but even so how much of their annual acquisitions budget would they have to part with to buy it now?

I liked some of the coastal and river scenes and landscapes very much indeed, and a Manet still-life of half a cooked salmon on a table (I've seen a knife balanced over the forward edge of a table to break the line of it somewhere else quite recently, and can't remember where.  I think it was a device used by Rubens, or Rembrandt, or both).  Some of Renoir's sweet, soft focus, characterless or at least extremely passive young women were less interesting.  Courbet's 1868 Venus arising from the waves complete with underarm hair was arresting given the date, and the amount of tizz that breastfeeding and female pubic hair can still provoke nearly a hundred and fifty years later.

After all that I'd have been happy to curl up for the evening with Our Ginger and a good book, but it was the beekeepers' monthly club night, and I'd already missed last month because I was ill, and I needed to drop off a cheque for the hall hire we owed for January and February as well as today.  I could have posted the cheque, which I made sure I got signed at the last committee meeting to be on the safe side, but that would still have left me with the task of finding a signatory for another cheque for something else.  So I took myself off to the meeting.  We had a good turnout, and a panel led discussion of practical beekeeping issues with contributions from the floor which was useful and entertaining, not least because the panellists didn't always agree with each other.

The Secretary introduced me to a new member who lives round the corner from us.  I promised to help him if I could, and lend him my extractor if he got a honey crop, while warning him that I wasn't a very good beekeeper and probably not a good teacher.  It's a mixed blessing having a new beekeeper set up just up the lane.  On the one hand he seems a nice chap and it's good to know the neighbours, but on the other hand our bees will be competing for the same forage.  It would be easier if the local farmers favoured field beans or borage, but lettuces and winter wheat are no use to bees.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

learning from Mr Turner

I was going out this morning, so thought I'd set an alarm to be on the safe side.  I woke up a quarter of an hour before it was due to go off, but when I tried to cancel it so that it wouldn't disturb the Systems Administrator I couldn't find any such option on the menu.  With the minutes ticking away until it was due to start bleeping I dug the instruction booklet out of the bedside drawer, and searched for the section on cancelling the alarm, but there didn't seem to be one.  Several of the buttons would make the noise stop once it had started, turning the alarm off in the process, but the idea that you might no longer want an alarm at all didn't seem to have occurred to the designers. In exasperation I resorted to unplugging the clock radio at the wall.

Much later I got rid of the alarm during my Pilates practice by setting the time to ten minutes hence, and getting up and pressing one of the turn-off-the-alarm buttons when it duly bleeped, but I still have no idea how to kill the alarm before the event, even after consulting the booklet again at my leisure instead of operating under time pressure.  There might be somebody on the planet less temperamentally and intellectually suited to becoming a bomb disposal expert than I would be, but I wouldn't count on it.

The conversation during the morning's outing turned to the way that Turner and Constable and before them Rubens used a splash of red in the foreground of their paintings to give the composition some zing.  Red marker buoy, waistcoat, petticoat, whatever.  In our garden it was some red anemones that had turned up in a pot of what were supposed to be blue ones, the bulb merchant's error rather than mine since when dormant you can't tell them apart (or at least I certainly can't.  I have heard that real daffodil experts can identify any variety just from the bulbs).  These red flowers caught my eye whenever I looked at that part of the garden, only rather than giving the composition zing they disrupted it.  You couldn't help seeing them, and they were annoying.

My mother suggested pragmatically that I could simply pick them and stick them in water.  It seemed an easy solution. but when I got home I looked at the red anemones again and thought I couldn't be bothered to commit myself to always rushing over to pick them.  With my most pointed trowel I levered the group up, and traced the stems of the red flowers back down to their source. There was not one rogue plant, but two.  I teased them out, replanted the rest of the clump, and watered them in.  The disturbance may have cut short their flowering for this spring, but the effect on the garden scene was remarkable.  Suddenly the different shades of blue and pale pink flowed into each other, no focal point, no eye catcher.  I should have done it weeks ago, as soon as I discovered the mistake.

I found a home for the two rejected plants by the front door, where their red flowers could echo the smaller red flowers of the Chaenomeles under the kitchen window.  Red is a good colour, but you have to be careful where you put it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

in the greenhouse

The Met Office couldn't make their minds up about today's weather.  Yesterday they were forecasting rain on Tuesday morning for our area with ninety per cent probability, then by this morning it had dropped back to ten per cent chance.  I could see the radiating circles of light rain falling on the pond as I stood at the kitchen sink, and decided to spend the morning doing a stint in the greenhouse, then it could rain or not as it pleased without disturbing me.

I have plenty of Eccremocarpus scaber seedlings, more than I could possibly use.  This is a tender, rapid climber that produces little bell shaped flowers in vivid shades of red, orange, coral pink or white (not all on the same plant).  I plan to send some scrambling among the dahlias, but know from past attempts to raise it from seed that the young plants rapidly grow into each other and seize on to their neighbours for grim death, so I moved the seedlings straight into three inch pots, so that I'd have some scope to space them out as they grew.  I am going to run out of space in the greenhouse, I can see this now.  I was left with half a pot of seedlings undisturbed, and slipped their root ball back into a spare pot and filled the empty half with compost for now.  They'll soon be too enmeshed to prick out, but just for a day or two they can act as an insurance policy in case the ones I pricked out don't take.

I don't like the look of the current bag of B&Q compost.  Their multi-purpose is normally good, besides being cheaper than many of the branded composts, but this bag seems to contain too much insufficiently composted ground wood.  I could see a fine mesh of fungus growing through the contents of the bag.  If it is purely a decay fungus then it shouldn't hurt living plants, but I wasn't keen on entrusting my replacement packet of gazania seeds to it.  That's the trouble with buying compost.  A given make may review well, or you may have a good experience with it, then the next time you buy the same thing what you find in the bag may be quite different.

A heresy.  I am pretty ecologically minded.  I don't fly, and am pretty sure my carbon footprint is a lot lower than Prince Charles'.  But I do resent not being allowed to buy decent compost, containing an element of peat if that's what it takes to make a tolerable growing medium, for as long as the Irish go on shovelling peat into power stations.  When we stop burning peat in industrial quantities I'll feel more guilty about the relatively tiny amounts used by home gardeners.  Until then, not so much.

I sowed some sunflowers, two to a deep three inch pot as a compromise between not wasting growing space and not wasting seeds, though the seeds came as freebies with magazines.  I thought they were big and tough enough to cope with the fungus ridden compost.  If both germinate I'll carefully separate them out.  Large seeds like sunflowers don't make the best free gifts to package up with magazines sent through the post, as they tend to get crushed in transit, and one of my packets of 18 FREE seeds worth £2.89 or whatever it was only actually contained twelve usable ones.  And one packet that said 'Red Sun' on the printed outer packet was labelled 'Velvet Queen' on the inner foil.  It doesn't really matter, as long as I get some dark red and some yellow.  Last year I never got round to sowing any, but a few self-sown volunteers meant it wasn't a total sunflower wipe-out.

After lunch I let the chickens out for a run, because they were grizzling so loudly, but by teatime it began to rain.  Quite hard, and by then I'd mislaid two hens.  Three were with me in the long bed, one was last seen standing shrieking outside the hen house, and the fifth I'd totally lost track of.  I sat in the porch with a cup of tea, hoping they'd go in soon, and to my relief they did.  It stopped raining, but by then I'd decided to call it a day on the gardening front.   Everything was wet, and the air was cold.

Monday, 23 March 2015


I have finally and grudgingly changed the blog background to green, since it was the first day of spring a couple of days ago (unless you are the Met Office) and I did briefly remove my fleece today.  I kept my beanie on, though, and was wearing two long sleeved t-shirts and a Musto thermal polo neck under a heavy cotton shirt.  That's how warm it was.

The bowl on the hall table where I keep any stones with holes in that I find was beginning to overflow, so I made up another couple of strings of them to hang from the posts by the blue shed. No witches are going to get into that shed, no Sir.  Incidentally, if you want to stop them running along the tops of your hedges the secret is to leave any holly trees uncut, as the witches won't be able to jump over them.

A friend who lives no more than three miles away as the crow flies, on the sandy soil of the Tendring plateau, said plaintively that she didn't have stones with holes in her garden.  Nor did we for many years, until I learned how to see them, so my guess is that she probably has but hasn't looked closely enough.  The holes are almost always blocked with earth when you find the stone, and the knack is to spot the depressions filled with earth that remain when you rub the rest of it off, that might go all the way through because there is a potential exit hole as well.  You will find out when you wash the stone under the kitchen tap, probing at the possible hole with the point of a skewer to scrape the packed soil out.  Sometimes you find you've picked up a dud, and sometimes a small pebble has wedged in the hole and takes a great deal of winkling out.  It is not a good idea to rest the stone in the palm of your hand while probing, just in case resistance suddenly ceases and the skewer shoots forward.

Of course there must be a preliminary stage of recognition, before you start narrowing in on likely spots of earth, to work out which stones are worth looking at more closely, but I don't know how that works.  Like posting messages on Snapchat*, you just recognise them.  Alas, while I have believed since my student days that Wittgenstein posed the question If you wanted to know whether a stone had a mouth, how would you know where to look? I have never been able to track it down since to source.  Or at least, Google has been no help.  I haven't yet resorted to reading the collected works of Wittgenstein.

I didn't find any new stones with holes today, but did discover one that was almost half a geode, a broken flint with a shallow depression on the broken face lined with faintly sparkling crystals of quartz.  Not as smart as the amethyst geodes you see in mineral and gemstone shops, but still good.

*If you are a devotee of the Kermode and Mayo Film Review Programme you will get the reference immediately.  If not, don't worry about it, though you could start listening.  It is easily the best source for keeping tabs on new film releases, and the odd vintage classic.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

grow your own

I have finally sown some vegetables, parsnips and some broad beans.  It's not much, but it's a start. And I finished weeding the asparagus bed, trying to tease out the two different sorts of running weed grass that have infiltrated, one with thin, wiggly roots and the other with fat straight ones. There are absolutely no signs of any asparagus coming up, and it was neglected last year, but maybe it's still too early.  It seeds itself around the garden, where I tend to leave it through a combination of aesthetics and idleness, the foliage being quite ornamental and the roots difficult to extract.  I have read of asparagus coming back after ploughing, so with any luck having to compete with weeds for one summer won't have killed ours.  I weeded it beautifully the year before, and Strulched the bed, and filled in the gaps with new young plants, but then came a savage dry spell and I'm not sure how many of the replacement plants survived.

I have a plan of what is supposed to go in which bed, worked out on a piece of paper.  Classic rotations as set out in the books ignore the possibility that one side of your vegetable patch might be shadier than the other, and my plan was based mainly on going through Dr Hessayon's Vegetable Book and seeing what demanded a sunny site, and what only had to be reasonably sunny.  One of the beds nearest the hedge was already earmarked for salad leaves, since I knew they liked a little shade in summer, and the sweetcorn was destined for the sunniest bed, but that left some juggling in the middle.  Dr Hessayon is amazingly gung-ho about chemicals, telling the reader to dust the soil against various pests with this and that product, most of which are probably no longer on sale. Our vegetables will have to take their chances with wire worms, but I am planning to fleece against leek moth, carrot root fly, and whatever it was that riddled my turnips with black holes the last time I grew any.  And I will need to net the purple sprouting broccoli against pigeons, if I ever get that far.

The surface of the freshly weeded beds is of course a snare and a delusion, since it is chock full of weed seeds.  It has largely been the weeding that's overwhelmed me in previous years.  That, and the watering.  We'll see.

The Systems Administrator had a bonfire, since the wind was blowing from the east to take the smoke into the wood and not out over the lettuce field or down to the neighbouring cottages, so the utility area is looking a little tidier than it was.  There is plenty more stuff to come down from the meadow to burn, though, largely bramble stems, both the wild ones and the terrifying Rubus cockburnianus.  It would be helpful if the weather could warm up enough for the SA to feel like mending the garden tractor, so that we could use it to cart the debris down in the trailer.  It currently has major carburettor problems and a knackered tyre, but there's no point in getting a new tyre for it until we see if it's possible to fix the fuel system.  But it would be more pleasant crawling around on the concrete working on the engine if temperatures would at least nudge into double figures.

It felt chilly today, and still not as though there was any great rush to sow things outside.  I'll try and do a bit more over the course of next week, though.  It must warm up soon, and before I know where I am it will suddenly be late April.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

a game of two halves

The morning was a bit of a shambles.  I was all set to get on with the gardening, fetchingly clad in black thermal leggings and three layers of t-shirts, only to discover when I went to let the chickens into their run that it was raining.  The forecast was for rain early and sun later, so I thought I'd use the time making a cake and then get out into the garden.  Cake in the oven, timer set to five minutes less than the recipe said, I thought I'd ring a friend I've been swapping voice mail messages with since midweek.  The friend was at home and answered her telephone, and we had a good chat and agreed to go and see Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery, and to a morning concert at the Aldeburgh festival if we could get tickets.  Result.

Six minutes before the timer was due to go off the kitchen began to smell over-much of cake. Telephone in one hand and oven glove in the other I retrieved the cake, and found the top had caught.  My friend said kindly that she would leave me to it.  I thought I could scrape the carbonised layer off once the cake had cooled down a little, and fired up the laptop to book our tickets for Sargent.  The booking form took me all the way through to entering my credit card details and then stalled, the little circular icon going round and round while a message said that they were processing my transaction and I should not refresh the screen.  For five minutes.

I thought I'd better ring the ticket office to find out whether I'd bought tickets or not, and if not book some.  The NPG has an explicit policy that tickets cannot be exchanged or refunded, and I didn't want to end up with two lots.  I fired up my tablet, since the laptop was still processing my transaction, and rang the number for tickets on their website, which turned out not to be the ticket office but general reception.  They gave me a different number, which put me through to a recorded message that their ticket office was busy at the moment, but I could book on line.  No, I couldn't, that's why I'm trying to ring you up.  After ten minutes of the recorded message I spoke to a human being and sorted out the tickets.

It was still raining.  I scraped the burnt top off the cake and drizzled some water icing over it, pepped up with honey.  Crumbs began to surface in the icing, which started to run down the sides of the cake.  I put the weeping cake in a cupboard for the icing to set, and when I took it out at lunchtime what was left of the icing on top of the cake had become more or less transparent.  I spent the rest of the morning moving compost on to the vegetable beds, and listening to a programme about Pierre Boulez, which confirmed my suspicion that on the whole I much preferred Schubert.  Or Haydn, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Bach, or Sibelius.  Or practically anybody.

The afternoon was much better.  I went to a Plant Heritage lecture about witch hazels, by Chris Lane whose now out of print book I bought a while back remaindered from King County libraries. The A12 and A14 ran smoothly, I found a parking space in the rather tight village hall car park without catastrophe, and it was a jolly good lecture.  It was packed, too.  I saw a couple of my former colleagues from the plant centre and got the hot gossip that the owners had put it up for rent, and met people I know from two different gardening clubs, and bought a very fine Clivia on the plant stall for the conservatory for the princely sum of five pounds in aid of Plant Heritage funds, complete with flower bud, so at least I'll see it in flower once even if I can never persuade it to do it again.  The afternoon felt much more productive than the morning.

Friday, 20 March 2015

what eclipse?

I kept half an eye on the window as I sat at the kitchen table writing up the minutes of yesterday afternoon's music society committee meeting and sorting out various bits of beekeepers' admin, in case I could see any signs of the eclipse.  It was a very grey and murky morning, and as twenty past eight approached I couldn't detect any difference in the light at all.  By nine I had to conclude that I'd missed it.  The Systems Administrator had heard an explanation from Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain (who read mathematics and theoretical physics at University College Dublin, making him one of the go-to comedians of choice when the media is trying to make science palatable) on R2 explaining that the loss of light would be about twenty per cent during the eclipse, but happen so gradually that our eyes and brains would compensate and we wouldn't notice the difference on a dull day. They were right, I didn't.

Having missed the once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, I nipped around the corner to Beth Chatto's to see if they had any Anemone pavonina, and was in luck.  There on a bench immediately opposite the entrance to the nursery were two trays of them.  Some were red, some pink, some yellow, and quite a few weren't quite open yet, but I managed to pick out four in my chosen colour range.  A stray Cardamine quinquefolia found its way into the basket as well, and then I went to pay before I could look at any more plants.  The Cardamine is for a very shady corner at the bottom of the back garden, where the existing one is doing well but not covering the entire space as quickly as I'd like.  It has ferny leaves and pink flowers in early spring, and disappears for much of the rest of the year, so is a good thing for quiet corners where you can enjoy it while it's out, and not worry about its absence the rest of the time.

There was another customer already hovering to pay, while the person nominally on the till was stuck on the telephone.  He looked into my basket and remarked that we both had the same idea, and I saw that his too contained pink and pale yellow Anemone pavonina.  I asked if he didn't like the red so much, and he replied that had them and did like them but wanted some other colours. He had succeeded in growing them from seed and said that you could get a flowering size plant in two years, so I must not allow myself to be put off by the mould episode.

There were not very many customers there.  I am afraid that the British are becoming a nation of fair weather gardeners.  Mind you, it was awfully cold, with a sort of raw dampness in the air.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

one thing leads to another

Now that the Systems Administrator has finished clearing the posts from by the blue shed I thought I could get on with planting the small boxes, but before I could do that I had to fill the holes left by the postcrete and level the ground.  I also had a collection of Agapanthus and a large pot of Amaryllis belladonna to plant out that weren't flowering well enough in their pots to justify their space over the winter in the greenhouse, and had thought that the surplus soil from digging the holes for them would usefully fill the post holes.  And it seemed sensible to finish cutting the hedge in that corner before planting the boxes, since they are so tiny it would be easy to crush them while hedge cutting with one misplaced foot.

The Agapanthus were all hardy varieties.  There was A. mooreanus, A. inapertus, a 'Loch Inch', one I picked out from a mixed batch because it was a particularly good shade of dark blue, and one pot simply labelled White.  As a general rule of thumb, Agapanthus with narrow leaves that die down completely in the winter are relatively hardy, while those with broad evergreen leaves are more tender, or at any rate, the leaves will not withstand frost and the loss of its leaves weakens the plant.  The A. inapertus threw me in that its narrow grassy leaves were semi-evergreen.  I resorted to checking on the internet to see if I could expect it to survive UK winters planted outdoors and decided to go with Avon Bulbs' verdict that I probably could.

Note the use of the word 'planted'.  Asking a plant to overwinter outside when its roots are safely tucked away underground, and you can heap some extra mulch on top if necessary, is quite different to leaving it outside in a pot, where the entire root system is liable to freeze solid in a sharp frost.  I realised this after I'd evicted the collection of pots from the greenhouse when something (probably another bout of the cold) put a temporary stop to planting, and the Agapanthus spent several weeks living in the porch.  It's lucky that the postman is good natured about picking his way round flowerpots and deckchairs to get to the letterbox.

Planting the Agapanthus brought it home to me how there were patches of weeds in the Italian garden in the turning circle, including around some Anemone pavonina which are flowering now and deserve to be given the space to show off, so I spent some time weeding the gravel.  I got the anemones from the Chatto nursery after admiring them in her gravel garden, though that planting had a preponderance of bright red, and the colours I really like are the pinks and creams.  For this reason I only want to buy them in person and when they are in bloom and I can see what I'm getting.  I only remember buying three, but now have four so either I bought an extra odd one and forgot about it or they have succeeded in seeding themselves very mildly.  I have tried saving my own seed and growing more, but nothing happened, or rather all that happened was that the seeds went spectacularly mouldy.  My few plants have been growing happily for several years now, and I am very tempted to invest in some more, if there are any pink or cream ones to be had (note the use of the word 'invest'.  Money spent on long-lived plants does not count as consumption, it is an investment).

So by the end of the day I'd done some weeding, dug several holes, moved some earth and some concrete lumps and wooden posts, cut bits out of the hedge (rather too late in the season), moved the bits, scooped up some fallen leaves, got decoyed into weeding the beach garden in front of the blue shed because it looked so weedy and I was there with a kneeling mat, a hand fork and a bucket, and planted out some Agapanthus and Amaryllis.  But not actually planted any of the small boxes.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

more mulching and weeding

The day dawned on two gleaming bags of Strulch on the top lawn, and two green buckets, and I resolved to use the Strulch that morning and move the buckets then keep the lawn free of mess, so that I'd have a clear view from the bathroom window.  The plan failed, in that I used the two bags, but then fetched some more, and picked up the rose prunings I'd left on the grass, but then did some more pruning and left new bits on the lawn, and distracted myself into starting the tackle the large lump of shrubby ivy that's fallen out from the wood over the deck on the far side of the lawn where the potted witch hazels live.  So by lunchtime I had more mess than when I'd started, although I'd got quite a lot of gardening done.  The day is definitely drawing nearer when I'll have finished mulching the rose bed behind the house, and it will be all set up for another couple of years.  But that day may not be tomorrow.  I managed to kid myself first thing that today could be the day, but by mid-morning had to admit that I was being hopelessly optimistic.

I was going to be hard hearted and press on in the afternoon, but the chickens sounded so disconsolate that I realised I had to let them out.  They were not keen to wander, and stuck close by me as I weeded the herb bed.  I don't understand how they decide when they are going to split into two groups, or go charging off down the garden, or whether to stay in a tidy flock close to the hen house.  I sometimes think they travel further on nice days, and today was pretty grey, but I'm not sure that's the whole answer.  Has something (a fox?) passed by their house on the off-chance and scared them recently?  It certainly makes for a more productive afternoon's gardening if they stay firmly in one place.

The herb bed has a path running diagonally across it, made by me, a diamond pattern of paving slabs set firmly in concrete with triangles of cobbles filling in the gaps.  I'm quite pleased with it. Borders of chives run down each side of the path, and around the two edges of the bed that aren't backed by the pot shed and the chicken run.  They have become rather gappy, and I have my eye on various clumps of chives that have put themselves in places where I don't want them, for lifting and splitting to fill in some of the gaps.  Chives seed incontinently, and when I think of the tiny pots that garden centres sell for between one and two pounds I can't begin to guess how much our chives would be worth on that basis.  I used to feel the same sense of dislocation seeing the plant centre charging the best part of four quid for little pots of Asphodeline lutea or Lychnis coronaria. I have to pull them out like weeds, indeed, while I give the Asphodeline its head in the gravel, within limits, the Lychnis is now functionally a weed and I pull out every plant I see.

Addendum  The Systems Administrator suggested keeping the lumps of postcrete instead of taking them to the dump, since they break up quite readily, to use as filler next time we're mending the potholes in the lane.  Waste not, want not.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

brute force and cunning

The Systems Administrator came upon me as I was preparing to dig out a third post, and asked why I did not knock them out.  I replied truthfully that it had not occurred to me.  It didn't sound a very likely procedure even when the SA suggested it, redolent of jarred fingers and jolted shoulders. The SA went and fetched a pick axe, and gave one of the posts several brisk thumps, then lifted it out of the ground, leaving the postcrete behind.  He inserted the sharp side of the pick axe into the hole left by the post, leaned on the handle, and the concrete lump broke into several pieces.

So it turned out to be that easy. no digging necessary.  I went to find a bucket to put the rubble into, then had to go out.  It was late afternoon by the time I got back, and a column of smoke from beyond the house told me that the SA was having a bonfire, something that had been promised once the wind went round to the east.  When the SA came in from the bonfire he said that he had extracted the rest of the posts for me, since I was keen to start planting in that area.

I was grateful.  Admittedly, since the SA had put the posts there in the first place maybe it was his job to get rid of them once they were surplus to requirements, but I was the one who wanted to use the space, and I don't have a residual frozen shoulder or a permanently dodgy knee.  So all I have to do now is scavenge around to find some soil to level the depressions left by the postcrete, and I can plant my young boxes.  If I find I don't have enough then with any luck the Clacton Garden Centre might still have some left.

When I was clearing the dead leaves off the gravel in that corner prior to tackling the posts I found a cache of useful young holly seedlings, small ones just a couple of inches tall with only four or so leaves.  There are always plenty of blackbirds flitting in and out of the hedge by the blue shed, so I may have them to thank for the hollies.  I might lift some of the seedlings tomorrow and slot them in hard against the hedge in the back garden behind the statue of the head of a muse.  I should like her to have a plain evergreen backdrop, instead of a view of the rabbit fence, deciduous hedge, and beyond it the neighbour's young trees compete with tree tubes, and rubbish heap.  I tried planting some yews that were left over from another project, but the water table rose and they drowned, but since the hedge has not drowned it might just be dry enough close to it.

Holly has a reputation for being a slow grower, but I don't think that's the case, or at least not for plain wild green holly.  Some variegated forms possibly are slow, but holly that's germinated in situ grows pretty quickly in my experience.  It pops up here all over the place, taking cover under other shrubs before suddenly emerging, sometimes at a height of several feet.  One such volunteer is now in the process of being trained into a standard lollipop, though another is for the chop because I don't want a holly there.  So I believe the problem gardeners have with holly is that it transplants badly and is slow to get going after being planted out from a pot.

The muse's head is mounted on an upturned black cylindrical flowerpot and the top of her head stands about a yard above ground level, so obviously it's going to take a while to grow any sort of backdrop for her starting with plants that are two inches high.  But the seedlings are free, and I'm hoping that they will move better than larger plants would.

Monday, 16 March 2015

cajoled by chickens

It's half way through March, and I'm still not there with the vegetable patch.  I've weeded some of the beds once, so that they just need a final going over, but others still sprout intractable tussocks of the nastier weed grasses, running roots delving deep or jinxing out under the paths, curly and fragile and ready to snap off before you've got the last piece out.  One bed that's received only a preliminary weeding still sprouts a fine crop of bramble stems, chopped six inches above the surface while I haven't got round to digging out the roots yet.  And the remains of the neolithic compost barrow are still sitting by the hornbeam hedge instead of being spread over the veg patch and beaten down with fork and fingers into something like a tilth.

I fretted that I should have sown the broad beans by now.  After half an hour of weeding and compost spreading I was rather more relaxed about having not yet opened a single packet of vegetable seeds, beyond starting some tomatoes in a heated propagator.  The wind was cold and so was the soil.  I certainly wouldn't have fancied sitting on it bare buttocked, the traditional test to see whether it's ready to sow peas.  It didn't feel as though I'd missed out on valuable growing days, even if broad beans and beetroot are hardier than peas.

Still, things must warm up soon, and I've got the seeds for the cutting garden to think about, as well as vegetables.  I was going to spend the day on the beds and try to move things along perceptibly, but ended up letting the chickens out for a run, even though the vegetable patch lies beyond the point where the chickens are allowed to go, up the side of the wood where the foxes live.  They looked so imploring, I didn't have the heart to keep walking past their pen and ignoring them any longer.  When chickens really want something they let you know.  They are very expressive animals, hens.  In fact, it was the sight of a hen in a run pecked bare at an industrial museum, trying very hard indeed to reach a nettle on the other side of the wire, that sparked my interest in domestic poultry, because I had rarely seen a creature want something as nakedly and intensely as that hen wanted the nettle.

When our hens want to be let out, they come rushing towards you each time you approach their pen.  Then they stand looking at you.  When you go away again they congregate disconsolately by the pop hole that would lead to temporary freedom, if only you would slide the door over, and they make little grumbling noises to each other that are different to the soft chuntering clucking they make as they settle on their perch after an afternoon ranging around the garden.  They radiate want.

They were very good when I let them out, and all five stayed close together and in the front garden, so I could get on with weeding and tidying without interruption.  In fact, they frequently came to inspect what I was doing, and hoover up any worms I'd turned up.  They are companionable animals when they behave nicely.  The afternoons that have me vowing not to let them out the next day are when two stay near the hen house in the front garden while the other three shoot off to the bottom of the back, or when they never stay anywhere for more than ten minutes before disappearing at speed, so that I look up from whatever I'm doing to realise that I can't see them at all, and then spend ten minutes walking around looking for them because they've gone to ground in a hedge.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

not quite spring

I was listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago, and there was an interview with a gardener who worked somewhere with a fine crocus display.  Apparently the late Queen Mother used to visit them.  The purpose of the interview was to discuss whether the crocus were flowering earlier than they used to, as evidence of rising winter temperatures, but the gardener said something in passing that stuck with me.  The garden was looking pretty good, she said, with the bulbs in flower, but still a bit drab because the grass hadn't started growing yet and still had that grey winter look.

In fact this winter has been mild enough that the grass has continued to grow through it.  We managed to get the lawnmower over the top and bottom lawns about a fortnight ago, and I was mightily relieved to have it done, before the grass could go into a spiral of being too wet to mow, and being so long it took too long to dry enough to cut.  But the gardener was right, the lawns do still have that tired, drab, wintry appearance.  Crocus have come and are now going, while the first daffodils are opening (in our garden, that is.  Other plantings containing earlier varieties have been out for weeks).  A second pink flowering cherry, Prunus x blireana is opening, slightly later than the P. mume (which is one of its parents).  But the effect is still not really spring-like.

I spent the afternoon pricking out and potting on it the greenhouse, and sowed a few seeds, but even with the door closed it was pretty chilly in there, and I gave up and came back into the house a good hour before it got dark.  Our Ginger scrabbled at the door and wailed to be let in a couple of times, but each time realised that the greenhouse was (a) cold and (b) boring and went away again.  The next time I saw him he was sitting on the warming plate of the Aga.

So even though it is mid March, and has been spring in meteorological terms for a fortnight, I shall not yet change the blog background from icy blue to green (for fresh grass) or yellow (for daffodils and primroses).  Soon, but not quite yet.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

brown field development

There has been a change of plan with regards to the layout of the garden railway.  An area of sidings that lived on a raised board next to the Systems Administrator's blue shed has been declared redundant, impossible to keep clear of leaves.  The track was duly lifted, and the board removed for recycling elsewhere.  I wasn't sorry to see it go.  Most of the railway is discreetly tucked away behind the long border, and the model houses are in any case very cute, but the board was oppressive.  The blue shed is a fine construction, modelled loosely on a beach hut and scratch build from planks by the SA's own fair hands, apart from the doors, and I'm in the process of giving it a suitably beach inspired planting, complete with a splendid (and very heavy) piece of driftwood with a hole in it that I salvaged from an actual beach in Northumberland and carried a very long way back to the car.  The railway sidings contributed to the picture, but not in a good way.

That just leaves me with the foundations.  The SA is not somebody to do things by half or jerry build a set of model railway sidings, and the board was mounted on ten lengths of square fence post, each one held fast in its hole with a generous dollop of postcrete.  The SA asked hopefully whether I could use them for something else, but I didn't want a raised platform in that corner of the garden.  I had vague ideas of a Nicole de Vesian or Japanese garden inspired series of mounds of clipped box, myrtle, cotton lavender, and germander, that would form a buffer between the beach planting and the railway garden proper.  It was not even that vague an idea, since I took cuttings to make it last summer.  They have all struck, apart from the box which I did ages ago and which sat there forever, not dying but not rooting either, but I bought some very nice young box plants the past time I was in the Clacton garden centre.

I thought of sawing the posts off at ground level and planting round them, but had a nasty feeling that I'd only be storing up disappointment for the future.  The soil is not very good as it is, and who knows whether the questing roots of myrtle and germander like lumps of postcrete when they find it?  And my knees would definitely not like finding the sharp corners of the sawn off posts, the first time I accidentally knelt on one while weeding.  The posts were going to have to come out.  I scraped the gravel away from around the first one, began to prod with a narrow trowel, and realised quite how generous the SA had been with the postcrete.

I got it out by dint of digging a trench around the edge of the lump, scraping away like an archaeologist with my trowel and putting the earth in a bucket so as not to make more of a mess of the gravel than I had to.  Assorted roots from the hedge, a ground covering juniper and the 'Red Sentinel' crab apples made the digging less straightforward than it might have been.  The post and its base came free just as the bucket was full, so that wasn't as bad as it might have been. After extracting two posts I thought I'd better switch to something easier on the wrists, though, and spend the rest of the day fingertip weeding and spreading Strulch among the polyanthus.  That leaves eight posts to go, so it will be a few days yet before I can get my young box plants into the ground.

I thought of clipped mounds for that corner partly because then they would work from both directions, as a backdrop to the railway as well as the beach planting.  In traditional Japanese gardens clipped evergreens can symbolise hills, and they can do the same thing for the model railway.  I shall put the box at the back, where it will be in shade for part of the day, then the myrtle which will take less than full sun, then the silvery leaved plants in the most sun and nearest the beach garden.  That's the theory, and I can let some of the box grow up to provide additional cover from the lettuce field, since the hedge is almost entirely transparent in winter.  It will be very nice, once I've got the posts out, and separated out the cuttings and grown them on individually until they are fit to plant out.  Instant gardening it ain't.

Friday, 13 March 2015

hard pruning

All buddleias respond well by growing from really old wood if the shrub is cut back hard.  So said George E. Brown, one time Assistant Curator at Kew, in his classic The Pruning of Trees, Shrubs and Conifers, first published in 1972.  It has been revised and updated since by Tony Kirkham, another Kew man, so let us hope the advice has not changed, since today I took a saw and cut back the Buddleia x weyeriana 'Golden Glow' in the meadow very hard indeed.

B. x weyeriana forms are hybrids of B. davidii, the familiar butterfly bush you see alongside railway lines and sprouting out of the upper portions of neglected buildings, and B. globosa, a less commonly seen species from Chile, which bears round (the clue's in the name) balls of orange flowers greatly loved by bees.  Hybrids between the two typically have flowers intermediate between the long, pointed clusters of B. davidii and the round ones of B. globosa, which may be yellow, purple, or a mixture, produced over a longish season with an element of repeat flowering inherited from the Chilean parent.  They are attractive, easy going plants, but after more than a decade and several years of total neglect, my specimen had a lot of dead wood in it.  I removed that, and then took a long, hard look at the tall, gaunt, bare-at-the-base shrub, and decided that I would rather have the flowers lower down where I could see them properly.  Plus, it had got out of scale with a neighbouring tulip tree, which is doing its best and does not deserve to be loomed over by a buddleia.

After the fell deed I fed it with blood, fish and bone, to help keep it going until I have time to tackle that bed properly, which may not be for months.  George E. Brown also says that buddleias are strong growers and require feeding and mulching, and my poor B. x weyeriana hasn't had any of that for years.  I hope it survives the experience, and grows away lustily, but if it doesn't then a replacement would not be desperately expensive, and should grow away fast.  I have seen for myself the amazing regenerative powers of B. davidii, since replacing a 'Black Knight' that had blown clean out of the ground in an especially bad gale only for the original plant to regrow from the remaining roots, so that I now have two.

What I don't know is whether, if 'Golden Glow' survives, I can expect any flowers this year.  B. davidii flowers on the current year's growth, hence we routinely prune them in late winter for flowers in the late summer, whereas B. globosa flowers from strong growths made the previous year, according to Brown, and hard pruning will sacrifice flowers for at least one season.  I ought to know which of its parents B. x weyeriana takes after, but am ashamed that I have not observed it that closely, having never pruned it.  I think I'm in luck though, since its Wikipedia entry (which I didn't read before giving it the chop) says it will grow to two metres if pruned hard annually, which implies that you can and still get the flowers, small panicles comprising globose heads of pale yellow flowers flushed with lilac.  And it turns out that 'Golden Glow' was one of the first two hybrids named, raised by a Major van der Weyer during the Great War and given the RHS Award of Garden Merit as long ago as 1923.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

two exhibitions and a relocated lunch

I went up to town today, for lunch with an old friend.  We were originally due to meet last week, but when she heard I'd got a cold she kindly and tactfully suggested she wouldn't be offended if I needed to postpone, and I decided it would be prudent to take her up on the offer (I moved my Pilates lesson as well).  We agreed on same time, same place, the Royal Institution cafe at 12.15.  I got there first, and discovered it was closing at 1.00pm for a private function.  That is a big no-no in my book, and my friend said the same when she arrived.  You are either open to the public or you're not.  Randomly closing at fairly short notice is a huge disincentive for people to arrange to meet there, even if it is on your website.  Nobody wants to have to make a last minute check to see if their chosen venue has suddenly decided to shut, and if so contact the rest of their party to rearrange.  And face it, central London is full of places to eat, and doesn't owe the RI cafe a living.

We went to Fenwick instead, and it was very nice.  Or at least, it was an outrageous amount of money for small helpings of food, but you are not just paying for the food but for a table (and tablecloth and napkins) in the heart of London's West End (and small helpings of food is what most of Fenwick's customers probably eat, not like us ravenous gardeners).  I hadn't eaten in Fenwick for years, and it was a relief that it was good, since up to that point the day had seemed mildly jinxed. Only slightly, as the trains ran on time, but the coin operated turnstiles in the loos at Liverpool Street must have broken down just as I arrived.  A stranger told me rather bossily that I needed to put thirty pence in the slot, and I complained that I had, and out of the corner of my eye could see people recoiling from the other turnstiles that were not already labelled as out of order.  I thought I didn't need to pee that urgently and would use the loos in John Lewis, only to be rebuffed from the first Ladies I found by a large man who said they were working in there, and directed me to some other loos in strongly accented English I didn't follow.  By this stage it was starting to feel like one of those dreams where you wander fruitlessly in search of a lavatory, before waking and realising you really do need to go the loo.  But Fenwick broke the spell.

From Bond Street it is a short hop and skip down to the Royal Academy, which is one reason why we'd originally chosen the RI, since if I'd still been feeling shaky I wouldn't have had to walk too far.  The RA is showing Rubens and his legacy, a show that optimistically tries to cover the life's work of Peter Paul Rubens and his impact on subsequent generations of artists.  Since he was extremely prolific and he influenced an awful lot of other people this was something of a forlorn hope, and as some critics have complained, there aren't all that many paintings by Rubens in the exhibition and some of them aren't his finest.  I found it interesting, but I don't think I'd have liked it as much if I hadn't just finished reading Simon Shama's 'Rembrandt's Eyes', which contains a lot about Rubens (and indeed Rubens' parents lives before Rubens was born, and Rubens' teacher's teacher.  It is almost as circuitous as Tristam Shandy).  I found the links between Rubens and Constable or Renoir more convincing than the Rubens influence on Cy Twombly, and I think the curators rather glossed over the fact that one Van Dyck mythological scene predated the Rubens picture once thought to have influenced it (zeitgeist, anybody?).  But it was interesting enough to keep me there for an hour and a half.

The next part of the plan was dependent on health and whether my legs held up.  It was dry and they did, so I yomped down to Tate Modern to catch Conflict, Time, Photography before it closes this Sunday.  It's been on since late November, and I've been meaning to go for all of that time, but it never worked out that way.  If anything I wanted to see it more than the Rubens, but my friend lives in north London and works in the West End, and said she would prefer not to meet south of the river if possible, and it seemed mean to drag her down there.  There is not much point in my saying lots of enthusiastic things about an exhibition that's about to finish, but it is very good, showing photographs of the after-effects of war, dating from twenty seconds after the act (the Hiroshima blast) to a full century.  It takes in the atom bomb, Vietnam, Angola, the northern Ireland troubles, the Berlin wall, the Kuwait desert, the Lebanon, the Balkans, British and French coastal defences, the Great War, various Nazi hide-outs and hang-outs and probably more that I've forgotten.  The images are striking and sombre, and I found them more emotionally resonant than Rubens' titivating classical nudes about to be abducted or ravished, but I suppose they are more of my own time. Pictures like Don McCullin's shocked, dead-eyed American soldier minutes after a military action were as you'd expect, but I am still rattled by the photograph of a young woman practising the harp in what was once Hitler's breakfast room, and is now a college of the performing arts.  I'd have thought you'd want to raze the building to the ground, but maybe they thought enough of Germany had been erased already.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

more snowdrops

I've been planting more snowdrops.  I dithered about whether to buy any this year, since there are already quite a lot, but the annual crop of newspaper and magazine articles on snowdrop gardens that have got the start of a few decades on me, if not a century, made me realize that we needed more.  This is using the word 'need' in the gardener's sense of want, fully justified on aesthetic grounds.  Obviously I do not need snowdrops in the same sense as I need food, or clean drinking water, or to remain connected to the electricity supply, but I wanted them.  I felt the garden would be more beautiful and complete if various empty corners had snowdrops in them.

I could have split some of my existing clumps, but even the biggest are only just beginning to develop that air of opulence possessed by really well established naturalised displays of snowdrops. I didn't want to whittle them back down to little clumps of three in order to spread what I had more thinly, I wanted more.  In the end I compromised and bought five hundred rather than the round thousand.  They are cheaper per bulb if you get into four figures, but still quite a lot in absolute terms.  I am waiting for somebody to write the story of all the people who have bankrupted themselves making their gardens, but in the meantime I am trying not to join them.

Some of the extra bulbs are for the rose bed below the veranda.  I planted some a couple of years ago in the lower part of the slope where the soil starts to get heavier, and they did surprisingly well, so I thought it would be nice to sweep them across the width of the bed until they reached a natural break where the roses got more dense, and a couple of clipped box domes provide some evergreen mass.  The rest were to fill out edges of the planting in the wood, where the existing display didn't quite reach to places it looked as though it ought, the skirts of holly trees and the bases of various shrubs.  I wasn't going to waste my bulbs planting them in dense dry shade, but I felt as though last time around I hadn't coloured in the page right to the edges.

It's a nice question working out where they are going to take, and where they will dwindle away more or less rapidly.  They won't sit in mud, obviously, but don't like it too dry.  They don't seem to tolerate soil that's already packed with tree roots, but seem fairly relaxed over quite a broad spectrum between stiff clay and quite light, structureless soils.  I've planted more over the years than have survived, using the technique of spreading them fairly thinly in the first year, then going back the next year and thickening up the planting in the areas where I can see they're doing well, making tall clumps and flowering.  If they can only summon the energy to send up a few weedy leaves and no flowers then I don't waste more bulbs in that spot.  After a few years, of course, they may have died out completely from that patch and I may forget they were there and try again, but given the water table moves around and the amount of shade varies as trees grow or topple, that's not necessarily a bad thing.  They seed themselves where they're happy, and the bulbs make offsets, so the display is gradually increasing, but it's still not the torrent, the carpet, the cascade of white that I should like.

I got this year's bulbs from a firm called Chapelgate.  They are not the cheapest, five hundred bulbs setting me back £51 including delivery, but I've used them twice before and been impressed by the speed of delivery and freshness and quality of the bulbs.  This year was no exception.  I placed my order last Thursday and the box arrived yesterday, the bulbs neatly wrapped in bundles of fifty inside sheets of newspaper in polythene bags, leaves still stiff, plants neither dessicated nor wet and slimy.  You may think that the second week of March is late to be planting snowdrops, but I've learned to wait until the existing ones are starting to go over.  However fresh the ones you plant, they always look dishevelled for the rest of the first season they go in, so I don't want to introduce them to the garden display while it is still pristine.  Plus, the longer they have to grow before being lifted the healthier they should be.  The current thinking from the snowdrop experts is that they are best moved in June when they are dormant, but of course then you can't see where the existing ones are.  Moving them as they start to die back is a compromise.  What they hate above all else is to be dried out.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

the art of unsubtle staking

I revamped the stakes in the dahlia bed today, six new ones from the garden centre and a seventh recycled from a young orange-twigged lime tree which had grown enough for the stake to be surplus to requirements.  I was amazed that the tip of the last hadn't rotted off, and that I was able to wriggle it free of the ground without breaking it by rocking it gently but firmly until I could slide it out of its by then V shaped hole.  I painted all of them in cheerful shades of red, orange and yellow, left them to dry and banged them in.  Job done, and while I was at it I used up the left-over paint (until I ran out of yellow) repainting some of the existing stakes.

The coloured stakes started as a sort of jeu d'esprit, adapted from an entirely serious show garden I saw in an article about an avant garde French garden festival.  That had an array of stakes, blue on one side and I think a contrasting colour on other sides, so that the effect would change as you walked around them, all hammered in dead square.  I wasn't aiming at anything so sophisticated. Hammering stakes into our stony ground so that they remained perfectly upright and rigidly aligned along any given axis would take so long that I really couldn't be bothered.

The need for stakes only gradually dawned on me.  Dahlias are not intrinsically floppy, but do tend to blow over.  I began by messing around with bamboo canes, but they were not up to the weight of the dahlias in full growth, so I began to use small square profile tree stakes.  Most of the National Trust gardens with dedicated dahlia beds that I've visited use something similar, choosing stakes that are slightly shorter than the mature height of the dahlias, and leaving them a subfusc shade of brown.  You could say that my decision to use much taller stakes, up to twice the height of the dahlias and thick enough to support a young tree, and paint them brightly was poking fun at the whole convention of invisible staking, an art that's dutifully explained every year in gardening columns as regularly as the features on how to ring the changes with your Christmas lunch that get trotted out each December.  You could, but in truth the project is not that cerebral.  The oversized red and orange stakes are simply a bit of fun, a splash of colour in winter that coordinates with the tulips, the dahlias and the sunflowers in spring and summer.

I use a basic artist's acrylic paint.  The cheapest place to get it in Colchester seems to be The Range.  Today's efforts used up the whole of a 250 ml pot of Cadmium yellow, and most of a pot of Cadmium red.  It will flake and fade a little over time, but about that much effort on new stakes and paint every couple of years is enough to keep the effect going.  The main issue is the stakes rotting through below ground level, which is the inevitable fate of buried softwood, pressure treated or not, and is in any case what tree stakes are supposed to do, in case nobody remembers to remove them.

The dahlias are all in shades of yellow, orange and red, though the red varieties never seem to last as well as the others.  There are orange pot marigolds that seed themselves from year to year, and parsley that originally escaped from the herb bed.  Parsley foliage is quite ornamental, if you forget about it being a herb and look at it objectively, so I leave it to get on with it.  I've got some sunflower seeds to plant, and am going to experiment with Tithonia this year, though the bed may be too dry for them, and I've read that they only put on a good show if they get plenty of sun, being complete duds in dull summers.  I've got a few castor oil plants coming on in the greenhouse as well.  An amber flowered honeysuckle and the bright red rose 'Chevy Chase' grow up the trellis at the end of the bed in front of the greenhouse, and I've got the perennial nasturtium 'Ken Aslet' on order, hoping that this will be third time lucky.  So far I've tried one in the ground, which died very quickly, and one in a pot, which met a lingering end, sending out weedy and totally non-flowering foliage for several years, until I gave up (or perhaps it did).

I think I see a window of opportunity before the dahlias really get going, and am going to add some red and orange oriental poppies I grew from a couple of packets of free seed.  They are nice healthy plants, and I couldn't think what to do with them, then my eye fell upon the blank space of the dahlia bed.  Oriental poppies die down after flowering and seem quite happy sharing their quarters with late season performers.  In the back garden I've got some among the perennial peas, and both are still alive and well after a couple of years of cohabitation.  I've toyed with the idea of buying some red and yellow plastic windmills from the beach shops at Clacton, but have resisted so far.  At the moment the dahlia bed is gaudy, but it stops just this side of kitsch.

Monday, 9 March 2015

rhubarb, rhubarb

The rhubarb is starting into growth.  'Timperley Early' is ahead of the pack.  It has already unfurled some of its tight, red, knobbly buds, revealing crinkly little bright green leaves on miniature red stalks.  I planted 'Timperley Early' years ago, and by now the plant is huge, a good couple of feet across at the base, like a coppice stool, and invaded by bramble stalks that I have to yank out.  I read articles about how I could lift, divide and rejuvenate it, and then leave it alone (though if I did divide it at least I could then have a proper go at getting the brambles out).  It will get some 6X, that most potent and magical chicken manure powder, and a mulch of wood chips.

Rhubarb is supposed to be idiot proof, but I haven't found it the easiest plant to establish.  One plant, bought (I think) from Homebase rotted quietly away without putting out a single leaf. Another was undermined by moles, and I think there may have been a third casualty, though it's difficult to remember after more than twenty years.  This has left me with two other rhubarb plants, neither of which is entirely satisfactory, and neither of which possesses a name at this moment as I lost track of what I'd bought and what lived.  One produces very slender, deep red stems which look as though they would be delicious, if only I had the heart to pick them, for the plant is such a weedy little thing and increases so slowly and reluctantly that I have never felt able to denude it of any leaves.  The other sends up monstrously fat stalks, which don't taste particularly strongly of rhubarb, or anything else.

I wish I knew what my two vaguely disappointing plants were.  I love rhubarb.  I could happily collect it, and have to fight the urge to buy more when I see them in their tempting bags in garden centres, or gracing the pages of online seed companies.  I would enjoy lining up lots of different crowns, all properly labelled, and then comparing the flavour, colour, thickness and stringiness of their stems.  But one has to be sensible.  The Systems Administrator does not even like rhubarb, besides which it can be a trigger for gout and the SA after once having had an attack would prefer never to have another.  My rhubarb eating has to be a solitary pleasure, the odd crumble made for consumption when the SA is out, or for breakfast as a change from porridge.  One gigantic 'Timperley Early' is honestly enough for one person, even leaving the other two plants out of the reckoning.

I don't bother forcing rhubarb.  Some terracotta forcers are nice bits of kit, but I couldn't be bothered.  I'm quite happy to start picking when it's ready, maybe freeze some for later in the year, and then stop picking as the plant starts to look manky and forget about rhubarb for the summer and all that soft fruit.

Rhubarb's only drawback (given that I don't suffer from gout) is the amount of sugar you have to put on it to make it edible.  I like my cooked fruit on the tart side, to the point where I automatically offer any kind of apple pudding to guests with a bowl of sugar, because what tastes right to me will probably be too sharp for most other people, but I still need lashings of sugar on rhubarb.  It was originally regarded as a medicinal purge, not a foodstuff.  I ought to grow Sweet Cicely to go with it, a natural sweetener said to reduce the amount of sugar you need on rhubarb, but I've never managed to get that organised.  Rhubarb leaves are apparently good for cleaning burnt bits off saucepans, all that oxalic acid.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

end of the concert season

The music society has had its last regular concert of the season with a nine piece European ensemble of strings and a trumpeter.  They are part of a larger orchestra, on an English mini-tour, and kicked off with a Baroque first half, culminating in an oh-goodness-this piece of Bach, before veering off into the second half into Mozart, Borodin and Holst.  It wouldn't have occurred to me to put that programme together, but what do I know?  The Borodin and Holst were both know-them-when-you-hear-them radio staples, and the whole was performed with gusto.  There was even an encore, a smoochy tango-esque number by a composer whose name I didn't catch, and still didn't recognise when a friend told me she thought it sounded like.

We were back to a four o'clock kick-off.  I like that as a start time, now I'm not working on Sunday afternoons.  It leaves room to sort oneself out and get to the concert at a leisurely pace after lunch, and there's still time afterwards to fit something in before supper.  I stopped off for a cup of tea with a friend who lives in the village.  We have been experimenting with three o'clock starts, but they have drawn complaints from regular concert goers whose Sunday lunches are more elaborate and sociable than the Systems Administrator's and my normal frugal and solitary fare of cheese and crispbread.

There is basically a shortage of meeting spaces for community groups in this part of the world.  It's probably the same everywhere.  So the beekeepers went through a homeless, wandering phase when a Zumba class set up in the larger room next door, because they were so noisy.  Fortunately (unless you have invested heavily in training to become a Zumba teacher) that craze appears to be dying.  At the beekeepers' preferred hall Zumba was replaced by Tai Chi, which was much quieter. In the case of the music society, the intermittent Friday evening bookings in the village hall fell foul of the ballet class, which being a regular earner and not a three or four times through the whole winter thing took priority.

The music society uses the local church as well as the hall, which is larger and altogether more beautiful and atmospheric.  And colder.  So cold, in fact, that it isn't really suitable for the middle part of the October to March music season, so when we were bumped out of the hall on Friday evenings we had to look for alternatives.  Hence the experimental 3.00pm Sunday concerts in the hall.  The committee discussed the fact that they had met with less than universal acclaim, and it was suggested that they could be pushed back to 4.00pm, like the church concerts.

Then some bright spark suggested Saturday evening concerts.  Leaving aside whether we'd be able to get the hall for the dates we wanted on a Saturday night, when we'd be competing with weddings, birthdays and goodness knows what, I privately thought that our audience might give Saturday evenings a bigger raspberry than 3.00pm on Sunday.  All families are different, but in my book Saturday evening is prime family and friends time.  Even if we weren't planning to go out, I'd feel mean about leaving the SA alone too often on a Saturday night.  For people who work conventional hours, it is one of the only two days in the week when they don't have to get up in the morning, and for commuters it's the one day in the week when they don't have work the next day and aren't at risk of being stuck on a train on the way home.  The optimists on the committee said that people would know months in advance when the concerts were and could plan round them, but I wasn't too sure they would.  After all, their friends inviting them to dinner and adult children suddenly announcing their intention to come home for the weekend weren't going to plan their social lives around the music society's programme.

My hunch is that on reflection cooler heads will prevail, and Saturday evening concerts will be seen to be a no-no.  Although a later start in the hall on Sunday afternoons throws up the question of refreshments.  By tradition, 4.00pm concerts have tea and biscuits in the interval, whereas evening concerts have wine and nibbles afterwards.  A couple of years ago the Chairman outsourced the tea making to the ladies of the church, who were happy to do it at a pound a head in aid of church funds.  They were honestly much better at it than we were, and nobody seemed to grudge a pound to the church, so everybody was happy.  But they probably wouldn't want to come and make tea in the hall.  The 3 o'clock concerts had an interval with no tea, and wine and nibbles afterwards at what seemed to me an indecently early hour for wine (though as I was driving I was abstaining anyway).  So what refreshments to offer with a 4 o'clock hall concert?

Now the Chairman and secretary are investigating the facilities at the High School, so it may all change again.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

outdoor housework

I spent today tidying the utility area.  Unless you are prepared to put everything out for council green waste collection or take it to the tip, you need somewhere for compost bins and bonfires, plus in our case the remains of the fruit cage, the Systems Administrator's forsaken greenhouse, a polytunnel badly in need of reskinning and arguably too close to the hedge, and the vegetable patch, currently in the course of renovation.

It is not a glamorous gardening job, but needs doing.  Part of the immediate impetus came from the fact that the SA has been diligently shredding the piles and piles of branches I cut out of the hedge, and the bags of shreddings are accumulating all over the place.  It is not awfully morale boosting to spend your time pushing hawthorn twigs through a shredder to make mulch that your co-gardener never uses, so I thought I'd better weed some more of the untidy spaces between the bins, the bonfire heap, cage and greenhouse, and spread the chippings on them to make neat, weed-free paths.  Unfortunately the chippings I spread before have not been up to the job of suppressing an emerging crop of goose grass and speedwell, so it took some time scrabbling and scraping to nip these out.  I am hopeful that if I don't let any grow and seed this year (a big if, admittedly), the reservoir of seed near the surface will be exhausted, and the problem will sort itself out.

I am also aware that the time when I should be making my first sowings of vegetables and cut flowers is growing nearer, assuming I am going to grow any this year, and since I've already bought some seeds I really should give it a go.  I could already have sown broad beans, if I'd got around to it, but the books always say comfortingly that later sowings catch up with earlier ones.  Maybe next week.  I'd already done quite a lot of work weeding most of the beds, but they need a final going over, and there are a few intimidating and intractable looking patches of grass and other perennial rooting nasties left to tackle.  Fork out what I can, and hit the regrowth with glyphosate, I reckon.

The other thing I need to do with the vegetable beds is finish moving the last of what was a truly gigantic compost heap on to them.  Nowadays we have a series of bins, and it is quite organised, but in the early days I just piled everything in a great mound, which grew until it looked more like a neolithic burial site than a compost heap.  Early experiments with vegetables demonstrated that without improvement the soil in the top part of the garden was incapable of producing decent crops.  Or at least, incapable without the levels of irrigation the lettuce farm uses.  So I began to move the great heap on to the veg patch, killing two birds with the proverbial stone, and I'd like to finish moving it because then I could spread wood chippings over the place where it was, and it would all be tidy.  Except that there is quite a lot of it left.  It is a peculiar spreading shape, like a limestone escarpment, with a shallow slope at the back and a steep face at the front where I've been digging it out, and I don't know how to estimate its volume with any pretence of accuracy at all, but there's a lot of it.  Quite a few cubic metres, possibly four or five, when I try to compare it in my mind's eye with a dumpy bag of gravel from a builders yard.  It isn't heavy, but that's still a lot of trips with the wheelbarrow.

Before I could do any of this I had to move the large heaps of hedge prunings that were still piled on the vegetable beds.  The only place to put them was on the site of the bonfire, so we can't have a bonfire until they've been shredded.  So many things you can only do after you've done something else.

Friday, 6 March 2015

high level pruning

We had been planning to go to the North Norfolk Railway spring gala today.  Not in the sense of having made a very concrete plan, but I'd found out when it was on, and suggested to the Systems Administrator that we could go, and the SA had said the Friday would be better than the weekend because it would be less busy or at least there'd be fewer children.  We went a few years ago, and had a very nice day out.  You will never see so many middle aged men look so rapt and unabashedly happy as at a steam gala.

But then we didn't go.  The SA was worried about how well our residual colds would cope with standing about on the Norfolk coast in what is still only the first week of March, even if it was quite a sunny day.  The East Anglian coastline tends to be bracing, unless it's the sort of weather where inland temperatures are forecast to hit 30 C.  And apparently the line-up of guest engines wasn't very exciting, because at this time of the year a lot of them are still undergoing maintenance in the rush to have them ready for Easter.  I wasn't too fussed about not going.  I thought the SA might have liked it, but after wasting all last week being ill I have masses to do in the garden.  Forgoing a less than scintillating steam gala was a way of getting one day back.

I have almost finished pruning the willow leaved bay by the veranda.  It is a very good form of the common culinary bay, Laurus nobilis, which has long, narrow leaves (hence the name) and a strongly upright habit of growth.  I sang its praises to my former manager and told him that the plant centre ought to offer it, but they never did.  I got mine from Architectural Plants near Gatwick, who claimed that it was hardier than normal bay.  Certainly mine while looking rather sad and singed after those two hard winters didn't suffer appreciable die-back and was restored to perfect condition as soon as it had shed the burnt leaves and grown some new ones.

Its one drawback is that it would like to be large, bigger than the space I want it to occupy.  And it grows fast.  It maintains a neat, narrow, conical shape without clipping, but I don't want it obscuring the view from the sitting room and spreading out across the border to engulf assorted rose bushes.  Fifteen feet tall would be plenty.  It is planted on a slope, so I can't use a ladder without tipping over, except to work on the uphill side where I can lean it against the bottom of the bay. The border is too crowded with other shrubs for me to get the Henchman in there, so I can cut the bottom six feet from the ground and above that I have to use the long handled loppers.  It is tiring working with a ten or twelve foot pole above your head for any length of time, and doubly annoying among other shrubs as the string that operates the cutting mechanism gets caught in them.  So I wouldn't put using the pole lopper at the top of my list of fun things to do in the garden (I have the same issue with vacuum cleaners, where I always seem to get the flex caught around the furniture, and I hate vacuuming).

With a job like that you can't really see what you're doing while you're doing it, so you have to take several steps back periodically to see how it's looking.  By now there are masses of bulbs coming through in the border, so you can't take one step, let alone several, without watching your feet very carefully.  I trod on the emerging snout of a foxtail lily the other day, and felt terribly guilty for the rest of the morning while trying to console myself with the thought that in their native steppes they must have to cope with being trampled on by yaks, or reindeer.  Even once you've taken several careful steps back and looked at the shape of the bay, you can't recognise any of the branches you identified for removal once you're standing right under it again.  Still, I think I'm getting there by degrees.